Sunday, April 12, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.1: The Wars to Come

It’s back!! And unlike Jon Snow at a dinner party, Game of Thrones is always welcome.

The wait between seasons seems interminable, and yet, whenever Game of Thrones returns, it’s like we never left Westeros at all. While other shows ebb and flow in quality, this is the one series that maintains such a high level of acting, writing, set design, costuming, and score, that it is simply unparalleled on television.

As always, I am joined by Christopher Lockett, a dear friend and colleague who is a professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, and who has read the books several times. He will fill us in on where the series diverges from the books, what it does right, and in some cases, will explain in more detail some background information that might enrich our viewing experience. Since I have read only the first book, I will focus on the show less as an adaptation, and more as an entity unto itself. Without further ado, here we go!

Nikki: Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. In the opening credits sequence (which my husband insists will be 10 minutes long by the time the show is in its tenth season, but which I always love to watch), you are always given the places that will feature or be mentioned in that episode. In this one, we are shown King’s Landing, The Eyrie, Winterfell, The Wall, Pentos, and Meereen. Winterfell is finally no longer spewing out smoke, but notice it now contains the rack upon which we see Reek (formerly Theon Greyjoy) tied to when Ramsay Bolton wants to torture him. The new place, Pentos, is shown only sideways in this episode, and considering Tyrion approaches the city while lying on his side, and then is off-balance and drunk the entire time he’s there, this angle makes perfect sense.

We open with two girls wandering through the woods, one wanting to turn back lest they get into trouble, and the other, golden-haired one a haughty little thing who forges ahead, insisting her father is not a man to be feared. It doesn’t take long to guess that the defiant one is a young Cersei, as much a peach in childhood as she is when she’s grown up, and she’s going to see a witch who will predict her future. She will marry a king, and will become queen. When she asks if they will have children, the witch replies, “No,” and then says he will have 20, and she will have three. The child looks baffled and says that doesn’t make any sense, but we viewers at home nod knowingly — of course they won’t have children, but she will have three children with her brother Jaime, while Robert will populate King’s Landing with his bastards. But her reign as queen will be short-lived: she will be displaced by someone younger and more beautiful, who, she is told, “will cast you down and take everything you hold dear.”

You can just feel the adult Cersei clenching her fists, gritting her teeth and muttering, “Margaery...”

What Cersei holds dear are her children, and her family’s power. Margaery Tyrell displaced her as queen by marrying Joffrey, and Margaery’s grandmother saw to it that that marriage wouldn’t even make it to the wedding night (thank GOD for that). Now Margaery is about to marry Tommen, displace her a second time, and we can only imagine what that will mean. Olenna’s murder of Joffrey put the blame on Tyrion, who was locked up and ultimately killed Tywin, so, knowing Cersei’s mind, she will eventually twist the events in such a way as to trace the blame for her “beloved” father’s death back to Margaery. One could be grateful that Cersei’s daughter, Myrcella, is safe in Dorn, except for the fact that she’s in Dorn, which is the homeland of Oberyn, the man who was slaughtered by the Mountain at Cersei’s insistence. Knowing that her daughter was being married into his family, Cersei clearly didn’t think that one through.

“Gold will be their crowns,” the witch tells her, “gold... their shrouds.”

And now we are in the present, with Cersei climbing the stairs to see her father’s body, as it’s laid out just like her son’s was, with Jaime standing guard nearby, “The Rains of Castamere” gloomily playing, the statues of the Seven surrounding the corpse, and Tywin’s face adorned with those stones that make him look like he’s still staring up at you, and are about as effective and creepy as Richard Harrow’s mask on Boardwalk Empire. She blames Jaime for Tywin’s death at the moment, because he freed Tyrion, which allowed him to commit the act. “Our father is dead and that little monster is out there roaming free,” she hisses at him. She tells him that the other families aren’t their enemies (wrong) — it’s Tyrion. She shames Jaime, calls him stupid, that he doesn’t think through the consequences of his actions (rich considering the position in which she’s placed her daughter), and tells Jaime that their father loved him most of all as she kisses the top of his head.

If there’s one thing Cersei is a master of, it’s kidding herself.

And from there we move to a new place on the map of Westeros: Pentos. Our diminutive hero has escaped the clutches of Cersei, but he’s looking a little worse for the wear. Thankfully we have Varys there to deliver the episode’s best lines, as always. What did you think of our introduction to Pentos, Chris?

Christopher: Ah, but we’ve been to Pentos once before, with the same skew-wiffy map view, way back in the very first episode when we met a young and scared Daenerys and her psychotic brother Viserys … in the very same manse to which Varys brings Tyrion. Varys talks about his friend Illyrio, who owns the place, and who has been his co-schemer in trying to save Westeros from itself. (I was a little disappointed that Illyrio doesn’t make a reappearance, as he was played by the lovely Roger Allam, whom some of you might know from his role on the BBC radio comedy Cabin Pressure, in which he plays sage and world-weary co-pilot to Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant but inept captain).

Anyway … here we have one of our first big divergences from the novels. In them, Varys does not accompany Tyrion to Pentos—he just sends him on his way and disappears. Tyrion arrives in Pentos and is delivered to Illyrio’s house, and it takes somewhat longer for him to be read into the scheme. (In truth, I kind of like the brevity of this episode versus the novel—Tyrion’s drunkenness and self-pitying gets very tedious very quickly, and it goes on a long while). But here we have Varys to give his new ward the 411.

I have to say, I really loved how they introduced this scene, with Tyrion’s claustrophobic POV through one of the holes in his crate. I can’t say I blame him for heading straight for the wine. And the way in which Varys releases him to tumble onto the ground in a mound of straw made me think of The Hobbit when Bilbo releases the thirteen dwarves from the barrels after making their escape from the Elven king.

And we get a handy little bit of exposition here from Varys as Tyrion stumbles his way to the wine. From early on there has been the hint of a conspiracy at work: if you’ll remember from season one, there’s a scene in which Arya—chasing cats as part of her training with Syrio—chases one into a basement room where they store the dragon skulls. There she overhears Varys and Illyrio talking about the animus between the Starks and the Lannisters, and worrying over the timing of the inevitable war in Westeros, as Khal Drogo “will not make a move until his son is born.”
Now we learn more: there has always been a cabal of plotters, “a group of people who saw Robert Baratheon for the disaster he was,” who have been working behind the scenes to save Westeros from itself.

Tyrion, unsurprisingly perhaps, is having none of it. It’s questionable whether he’s even listening to Varys, only responding to him to contest his status as a lord. “I don’t think I am any more … a lord,” he growls. “Are you a lord if you kill your father?” As I already said, I’m happy that we move through Tyrion’s self-pity briskly—what’s on display here is to be expected and, to a certain extent, darkly entertaining. We hardly expect him to pop out of the crate bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but GRRM really kind of overdid it in A Dance With Dragons. Here instead we get a few moments of Dinklage-quality comedy and pathos, and I quite enjoy the contrast between his cynicism and Varys’ earnestness. “Why stop now?” he asks when Varys observes that he drank all the way from King’s Landing. “Because we are talking about the future of our country,” Varys chides him.

I need to pause there and note how rare such a sentiment is in this series: people talk about the “realm” at times, but mostly what’s at issue there is the Iron Throne and the power it confers. Besides that, the preeminent thing with which people identify themselves is family—or with whatever major family they are sworn to. “Country” is not a term or concept that has really appeared on this show, which is keeping with GRRM’s fidelity to history—and the fact that such concepts as country and nation were more or less alien to feudal societies. So to hear Varys speaking in such terms sets him apart from the squabbling factions he’s hoping to unite, and shows us that, for all of his scheming, he’s really quite the lofty thinker (certainly much more altruistic than his erstwhile foe Littlefinger).

But again, Tyrion is having none of it. “The future is shit,” he says, “just like the past.” And as if to punctuate his words, he proceeds to puke up the wine he’s just drunk. And pours himself another drink.

But then we cut to Mereen and the rather spectacular toppling of the harpy statue, a moment of ecstatic symbolism—the new queen ushering in a new order—almost immediately undercut by the murder of an Unsullied at the hands of a masked assassin. What did you think of where we’re at in Mereen, Nikki?

Nikki: Well, as you know, I pledged fealty to House Targaryen back in season 1, so Daenerys has always been my Khaleesi, my Mhysa. Until last season, she seemed to be the shoo-in for that Iron Throne. Who cares if you have the family name or believe it’s your hereditary right or you have an army? This woman’s got dragons. She has taken on the role of The Mother wherever she goes: she’s the mother of dragons, and the mother of her people. She frees slaves, they pledge loyalty to her and her alone, and she builds up armies this way. She seemed unstoppable.

But if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it. Turns out, when you free the slaves, you piss off the masters. Oh, and they don’t live side by side very nicely. The slaves have nowhere to go, no way of making money, no roofs over their heads. The slave-owners can’t function without the help and the economy tanks. And those dragons? Freakin’ HUGE and out of control. They’re swooping down from the sky and picking goats right out of the fields. When Drogon, the biggest and fiercest (and, named after her husband, the one to whom she is closest) went AWOL, Daenerys did the only thing she could think of, and chained up her other two children in a dark cellar, for their own good.

And now, things are falling apart. The people want the fighting arenas back: it makes the slaves feel powerful, and gives the slave-owners something to watch. Daenerys says no: it’s degrading and she’ll have none of it, regardless of what anyone, including Daario, tells her to the contrary. She doesn’t need to appeal to the lowest common denominator, she tells Daario; she has power in other ways. But she is now finding violent resistance in the form of the Sons of the Harpy — whom I’m assuming are made up of the nobility who have lost their power — who are attacking the Unsullied.

As she points out, she has the Unsullied patrolling the streets to remind people of her army. He scoffs, and tells her that any wealthy person could buy an army of the Unsullied. “You’re not the mother of the Unsullied; you’re the mother of dragons.” She tells him she can’t find Drogon, and can’t control the other two. “A dragon queen with no dragons?” he says. “Not a queen.” She descends into the cavern to find Rhaegal and Viserion, the two dragons named after her late brothers — who, similarly, could not be contained — and they attack her, breathing fire, screaming, and yanking at their chains. They’ve gone feral, and see her not as their mother, but the one who trapped them in this dark place.

Can Daenerys regain the strength she had in earlier seasons? The episode opened, as you say Chris, with that stunning sight of them taking down the golden harpy statue, which she means to be an act signifying that the slaveowners no longer run this place, but her. However, the statue is of a golden woman with wings — like a dragon — and I couldn’t help but fear that it was foreshadowing what was to come: she will come crashing to the ground just like that statue if she can’t find a way to regain control. The harpy statue wasn’t the only moment of symbolism in the episode: In a particularly brutal scene, we see a member of the Unsullied visiting a brothel. As part of their training years earlier, the Unsullied were ripped from their families, and stripped of anything that would ever make them enjoy sex. So he’s not there for that; no, he’s there for something else. Later Missandei asks Grey Worm what a member of the Unsullied would be doing at a brothel, and he says he has no idea. But it’s clear from the act what this man wants: to be mothered. He wants the woman to keep her clothes on and not make this act sexual in any way, so let him lie at her breast as she strokes his head and sings him a lullaby, to make him think that everything in the world will be fine. This is perhaps why Daenerys casts herself in the role of the mother — she is telling her people she will take care of them, that they have nothing to worry about, that she will be the safety net around them as long as they remain loyal to her. But, just as her motherly tie to her dragons has been snapped, so too does White Rat lull himself into a false sense of security in the arms of the prostitute, just as his throat is slit open.

Later, in the episode, Tyrion and Varys are speaking, once Tyrion has cleaned himself up and is trying to drink himself to death. (And thank you for correcting me on Pentos, Chris! The interesting thing is, during this scene with Tyrion and Varys standing on that ledge, I said to my husband that it looked exactly like the place where Daenerys had been standing with Viserys! I just assumed it was similar, and didn’t realize it was the same place.) He tells Tyrion that he is a compassionate man, and that what the land needs is peace, to be a place where the powerful don’t prey on the powerless. He asks Tyrion if he’d spread misery throughout the land were he to take the Iron Throne. Tyrion scoffs and says he’ll never sit on it. No, Varys agrees, but he says, “You could help another climb those steps and take that seat. The Seven Kingdoms need someone stronger than Tommen, but gentler than Stannis, a monarch who can intimidate the high lords and inspire the people, a ruler loved by millions with a powerful army and a right family name.” Tyrion scoffs again. “Good luck finding him,” he sneers. Varys stands up straight and replies, “Who said anything about him?” Daenerys has everything it could take to be a good, strong leader of Westeros. What she lacks is a proper advisor who is cunning and knows exactly how to maintain that power. The thought of her joining forces with Tyrion — the first time Daenerys’s character would ever actually share screen time with another character from another family on the show — makes me giddy with excitement. Now, if they could just get Brienne and Arya over there, it would be a perfect union.

As for that other Stark, Sansa’s hair is jet black and she has assumed a new air of confidence as she stands by Baelish’s side. What do you make of how our little girl has grown up, Chris?

Christopher: As I have said many, many times over the four years we’ve been doing these posts, Sophie Turner has done a yeoman’s job in what is easily the most thankless role in the GoT firmament. She started coming into her own at the end of season one, and spent most of seasons two and three undergoing the painful process of growing up in a hard, harsh world that is effectively the antithesis of all her dreams of princesses and knights. And then last season was yet another gauntlet, which she endured with poise and imagination, having learned some crucial lessons from Littlefinger. And now she seems to read the people around her well, and to carry herself with a confidence born of hard lessons.

And it is here that we find another divergence from the novels: Littlefinger’s plan to take her far away, not just from potentially treacherous people in the Vale, but far enough away to elude the long reach of the Lannisters, is new. In the novels, Sansa and Littlefinger stay in the Vale and she remains disguised as his bastard daughter Alayne. So where are they now going? Wherever, it will be news to me.

(And I’m curious to know what you think of this other tease, as Sansa’s coach passes by where Brienne and Pod have stopped at the roadside. Poor Brienne).

Which brings us back to Cersei, who is drinking rather heavily at her father’s wake and enduring a painfully insincere monologue from Loras Tyrell, telling her what a force he was. And we have our first glimpse of a new religious order in the person of Cersei’s cousin and erstwhile lover Lancel: he comes dressed in penitent’s robe, barefoot, and seeks her out, alone, to offer her his apologies for having tempted her into their “unnatural relations.” And we all snicker a little: as if Cersei was the weak, tempted woman in that relationship. And she herself cannot contain a laugh when Lancel promises to pray for Tywin’s soul. “The day Tywin Lannister’s soul needs your help …” she trails off and sips her wine.

I’ll be very interested to see how the show deals with the infestation of Sparrows. This is our first taste of the “bloody fanatics” who begin to descend on King’s Landing. Like much else in Game of Thrones, this austere, rigid religious order speaks to a larger sociohistorical truth: that fanaticism breeds out of despair. We’ve seen stark images of a countryside ravaged by war, people’s livelihoods ruined, families destroyed by violence, villainy, and rapine as the armies of the warring factions sweep back and forth across the continent. None of the great houses are innocent of barbarism, as Brienne’s fight with rogue Stark soldiers showed in season three. And out of all this death and despair rises a new order of people who attach themselves to whatever can give them meaning. “Their world is at hand,” Lancel tells Cersei ominously, referring to the Seven Gods, but we can also interpret that as meaning Lancel’s fellow Sparrows.

Of course, Cersei Lannister is not one to take a barefoot penitent seriously or for one moment imagine that a rag-tag band of fanatics possesses any power.

Nikki: And Cersei also has an enemy in the form of her widowed daughter-in-law, who’s about to marry Son #2. We see Loras in bed with Oliver, discussing plans to move to Dorn, when Margaery just breezes into the room and plops down on the side of the bed as if she has every right to be there. Just as she doesn’t kowtow to social conventions when it comes to her brother and his lover, she’s not going to bow before Cersei, and is clearly planning something. Loras says he doesn’t have to marry Cersei now, but it’s in Margaery’s best interests for him to do so because he’d take her away from King’s Landing. Otherwise, she’ll stick around and make Margaery’s life miserable. “Perhaps,” says the young queen, as she pops a fig into her mouth. “Perhaps.” What does she have up her sleeve?

Lancel has played a relatively small role in the series so far, and some of the non-reader fans might not recognize him or remember him (I had to jog my husband’s memory when he wondered aloud who he was). Viewers will remember him from the first season as the meek guy with the long hair who was always at Robert Baratheon’s side, whom he constantly mocked. 

He was his constant wine-pourer, and in one scene he is helping Robert put on his armour, which doesn’t fit, and then makes the mistake of suggesting that perhaps it’s too small. Just when it looks like Robert is going to have him executed, Ned shows up and says the armour isn’t too small, it’s that Robert has gotten too fat. Robert laughs and sends Lancel out to get his breastplate stretcher, and Lancel rushes out of the room to do so, completely oblivious to the fact there’s no such thing. Knowing that Lancel is Robert’s wine-pourer, Cersei sets him up by having him give the poisoned wine to the king, killing him on the hunt. When Jaime is taken away, she begins having a sexual fling with Lancel, who always comes off as a dolt whenever he opens his mouth to speak. Now, with his head shaven and his clothes gone, he looks and sounds completely different. He’s been abused and treated badly by the Lannisters and Robert Baratheon, and he’s changed his ways. We don’t know too much about the Sparrows yet, but I’m assuming there will be more explanation for us non-readers in the episodes to come.

As for Brienne and Podrick, their scene is brief, but important for exactly the reason you mention. As Brienne is licking her wounds from having lost Arya Stark, the one thing she thought still gave her life purpose, a coach goes by that contains Sansa and Baelish. I definitely squeed... now that Brienne has lost Arya (and is asking Pod to leave her alone), what if she were to find Sansa? Will she discover that another Stark girl is alive? Could this renew her sense of purpose? I’m VERY intrigued by the fact that the scene of Sansa and Baelish heading away from the Eyrie diverges from the books, as you have told us. I wonder how much it will stray from the story you know?

Of course, one of the best moments of this episode is the ending, which takes place in the Nawth, up at the Wall. Mance Rayder has been captured by Stannis, who asks him to bow before him and pledge fealty. But Rayder will do no such thing. I know how much you love Ciarán Hinds, the actor who plays him, so I’ll leave this last section to you, my friend.

Christopher: I do love Ciarán Hinds. He’ll always be Julius Caesar to me, but he has done an extraordinary job as Mance Rayder. And like many great actors, he brings out the best in those he works with: Kit Harrington’s best moments, to my mind, have been in the scenes between Jon and Mance. And as good as those other scenes have been, this one might well be the best.

It is an impossible situation, which Jon doesn’t quite grasp as intuitively as Mance does. He wants to save his people, but cannot do it by bending the knee. His one play had always been an all-or-nothing gamble: taking the Wall and Castle Black on his terms and letting his people escape the coming horrors of the north. His people won’t see the nuances—they’ll see their erstwhile leader surrendering and doing that which runs against their very identity of wildlings, and there vanishes whatever authority and respect he’d possessed.

Hinds is brilliant in this scene. If you want to see a subtle moment that communicates volumes silently, watch his face when Jon tells him he is to be burned alive. Until now, he has been implacable; here, a little twitch under the eye on hearing the news offers a brief but telling indication of the powerful emotions roiling beneath. “Bad way to go,” he says, laconically, but that brief moment tells us everything we need to know about the terror he’s feeling.  And it makes the speech that follows that much more powerful: “I’ll be honest with you—I don’t want to die, and burn to death. I don’t want people to remember me like that. Scorched, and screaming. But it’s better than betraying everything I believe.” Jon still does not understand, not entirely: “I think you’re making a terrible mistake.” And Mance responds with what could very well serve as his epitaph, and his people’s: “The freedom to make my own mistakes is all I’ve ever wanted.”

The execution sequence is excruciating, even before the fires are lit: Mance’s slow walk out of his cell, his point-of-view shot as he sees the pyre, the ever so slight hitch in his step as he approaches his death. But he possesses more dignity than any of the kings south of the Wall we’ve met, as he responds to Stannis’ offer of mercy by simply saying “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.” It is a simple but powerful statement, and serves to remind us that he truly bears the southerners no ill will or malice, and understands better than anyone the dangers they face if they remain divided in their petty power struggles.

We see then the fear in his face as the guards lead him up on the pyre and tie him to the stake. This scene I found difficult to watch, and not just because it is difficult not to imagine oneself in Mance’s place. It was difficult because you see Mance’s struggle, as the flames lick higher and he feels them scorching him, to not surrender to the pain, to keep his implacable demeanour for the sake of his people present … and for the sake of not being remembered that way. The reaction shots as he starts to break down are telling: Melissandre’s smug satisfaction, Queen Selyse’s almost erotic religious fervor, the anger and sorrow on the faces of his people, especially Tormund.

And then … Jon Snow gives him the parting gift of an arrow in the heart, so he will not suffer and his people won’t have to see it.

All of this falls out more or less precisely as it does in the novel. There is, however, one small detail I was watching for that I did not see. Which means that there might be a somewhat significant divergence from GRRM’s version. I can’t say for certain—we’ll just have to wait and see.

Well! That ends the first installment of the great Chris and Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog for season five, and I have to say I think the show is off to a promising start. We’ll see you next week for number two. In the meantime everyone, stay warm, and keep that door barred against ice zombies!


Suzanne said...

Nikki and Christopher,

So glad to see that you are both writing these excellent recaps again this season of GoT. I was so glad to be able to read your commentary the day after seeing this great start to the season since the experience wouldn't be complete without your commentary. Great job as always.

Zach Z said...

Nikki, it wasn't Cersie that sent her daughter to Dorne but Tyrion while he was hand of the king in season 2.

Chis, I agree it definitely seems that they are straying from the books with how that end scene played out.

Good stuff guys I look forward to reading your reviews all season.

Blam said...

The Good Wife, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones with some Daredevil sprinkled in made last night a perfect example of our current Golden Age of Television or Television-Like Filmed Serial Entertainment. Unfortunately, I ended up too tired to feel like taking notes, even knowing I'd likely be jawin' about the episode online the next day, so I'll just say that you both hit on many of the parts that resonated with me. Apparently the newfound freedom Game of Thrones enjoys in terms of the necessity to make its own way towards Martin's endgame has energized the showrunners even more, which is exciting to hear.

Nikki Stafford said...

Zach: Oh yes, I know that Cersei didn't have anything to do with Myrcella being sent away. What I said was, knowing her daughter had already been shipped off to Dorne, she arranged the tournament to have the Mountain destroy Oberyn, thus putting her daughter in a very dangerous position. That was the part I was saying she hadn't thought through.

Anonymous said...

Nikki - did Cersei arrange for the Mountain to kill Oberyn? I thought it only happened when Tyrion demanded a trial by combat & she named The Mountain her champion so she knew she'd win. I thought they were all shocked when Oberyn stepped up for Tyrion. At least that's how I remember it.

Also - couldn't Stannis offer all the Wildlings the same deal anyway? You'd think a significant percentage of them would take him up on it.

I found the excecution scene sort of disturbing in light of the fact those psychos in ISIS are actually doing this today.

Anyway thank you for the recaps and good to hear from you again.

-Tim Alan

Jade Graham said...

Miss Piggy appeared a handful of times, but seems to be taking a back seat to the other characters, Good website to Watch Game of Thrones online today